With all the decisions that go into choosing a college and preparing to attend, food can get overlooked. But selecting the right meal plan will help your student acclimate to their new home.

So how do you ensure your student is properly fueled up for success in college?

There are a bevy of dining formats out there, from all-you-can-eat to bulk meal buys to debit-style plans. There’s no bad meal plan—it’s all about finding the right fit for your student. Making the right selection comes down to an honest assessment of your student’s lifestyle and how it will translate to college.

Here are some things to consider as you dig into your options.

Where will your student be eating?

Food worker serves corn

There are many options when it comes to eating on campus, from buffet style all-you-can-eat to grab-and-go shops to well-known food franchises.

Each school offers unique offerings, but most feature buffet-style dining halls alongside on-campus retail venues and a la carte, grab-and-go shops. These are in addition to any number of restaurants off campus and, of course, your student’s kitchen.

Think about how your student likes to eat, and talk with them about which options most appeal to them. Will they make time to eat a sit-down breakfast at a dining hall if they have 8 a.m. classes? Would they like to snag a quick meal on the go or would they prefer to use dinner as a chance to sit down and socialize with friends? All of these factors and preferences will affect where they eat and how many meals should be covered by a meal plan.

When will your student be eating?

Your student’s schedule and the time of day (or night) prefer to eat can also influence their decision. Do they like to roll out of bed early and prepare an elaborate breakfast, or are they more likely to hit the snooze button a few times before rushing to class? Will extracurricular commitments mean they’re less likely to conform to a typical breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule? Do they stay up late and enjoy a good midnight snack?

Busy students or those who embrace a less-than-typical schedule may find a meal plan with more flexibility to be ideal.

Alex Way, a nursing major at Illinois State, thought about both his busy schedule and his eating preferences when selecting his meal plan.

“When I was a freshman, I chose a meal plan based on card swipes per week, and the reason I did that was I don’t eat breakfast,” Way said. “I ate two meals a day and it came with extra flex dollars, so I used that for coffee and bagels for breakfast. That worked best for me.

“Now I live off campus but I’m on campus the majority of the day, so I have a plan where I can eat at a dining center once a day and then eat dinner at home.”


Many colleges can easily accommodate a variety of food preferences and dietary needs.

Does your student have dietary restrictions?

Schools typically have accommodations for students with special dietary needs—vegetarian, gluten-free, lactose-free, etc. If your student needs special food considerations, make sure you learn what’s available so you can determine how often they will eat on campus versus how much they might cook for themselves. Also, utilize resources on campus like allergy-friendly dining venues, registered dietitian consultations, and advisory boards.

“Some people don’t know how many options there are in the dining centers for students with dietary restrictions,” Way said. “If you talk to the staff at the dining center, they’ll work with you. There’s stuff for everybody.”

Illinois State offers a variety of places to eat, dietary resources, and perks—like parents eating for free when they visit campus.

Know important dates

Make sure to pay attention to the meal plan calendar at your student’s school of choice. Some universities set up meal contracts by the semester, while others utilize a year-long format. Know what your student is signing up for, make sure they know how to monitor meal plan balances, and ask if it’s possible to change meal plans should the need arise. It’s also important to know whether unused meals or flex dollars carry over into the future, or if they expire.

College is a new experience and it’s possible your student’s lifestyle will change once they arrive on campus. Pay attention to what they’re eating and when and how fully they are utilizing their chosen meal plan. Then you can reassess if your student is maximizing their plan or if another option might suit them better.

Getting the most out of a meal plan means financial savings while assuring your student is well-fed and focused on academic success.

Want to know more about dining on campus at Illinois State University? Read about all of the options and resources Redbirds have access to.

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